Over our time tracking cover songs (13 years this month!), we’ve written about hundreds of new tribute albums, across reviews, news stories, and, when they’re good enough, our best-of-the-year lists. We also have looked back on plenty of great tribute albums from the past in our Cover Classics series. But we’ve never pulled it all together – until now.
Welcome to Cover Me Q&A, where we take your questions about cover songs and answer them to the best of our ability.
Here at Cover Me Q&A, we’ll be taking questions about cover songs and giving as many different answers as we can. This will give us a chance to hold forth on covers we might not otherwise get to talk about, to give Cover Me readers a chance to learn more about individual staffers’ tastes and writing styles, and to provide an opportunity for some back-and-forth, as we’ll be taking requests (learn how to do so at feature’s end).
Today’s question: What’s a favorite a cappella cover?
Full Albums features covers of every track off a classic album. Got an idea for a future pick? Leave a note in the comments!
I should probably start this with a pop music true confession: the first Joni Mitchell album I ever bought and listened to in full was 1974’s Court And Spark, and the sole reason I purchased it was because I’d heard Prince, whom I was obsessed with (this was the early ’80s), say that he loved it and thought she was a genius (or something to that effect). Basically, if the person who made my #1 favorite album (Purple Rain) with my # 1 favorite song (“I Would Die 4 U”) loved her, there had to be a reason, and I needed to know what that reason was. I bought the album, and by the time I’d finished playing it, like most humans upon exposure to Joni, I’d been transformed into a complete devotee, snarfing up every album and playing them endlessly forever. That Prince, he knew what he was talking about.
‘The Best Ever’ series counts down our favorite covers of great artists.
Joni Mitchell is 75 and won’t be with us forever. She suffered an aneurysm in 2015, and she’s coping with the little-understood Morgellons disease. She has difficulty walking, and has not spoken publicly in years. But if her place on earth is tenuous, her place in the heavens is secure; millions of people already look up to her every day.
Joni Mitchell’s songs are famous for being intensely personal, a deep expression of her self that people nevertheless relate to. Those who aspire to her voice become near-slavish devotees. There’s a great New Yorker piece about a small show of Joni’s that a drunken Chrissie Hynde gets overly caught up in (“That’s a REAL singer up there!”), and Hynde’s not alone. Mitchell isn’t just a real singer, though. She’s a real songwriter, a real painter, a real guitarist, a real follower of her muse – a real artist, one of the realest of the past hundred years. That authenticity is what continues to bring people into her circle on a daily basis.
In an excellent essay for NPR, Ann Powers wrote: “Like her prime compatriots Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen and her favorite protégé Prince, no one can adequately echo her; even great singers, taking on her songbook, admit they can only hope to achieve proximity.” Indeed, a Joni Mitchell cover is never just a tribute – it’s an assertion, an artist coming forth to pick up a gauntlet she lay down decades ago.
We found 30 covers that show the artists doing an especially good job at matching their talents to Joni’s, creating new works of art that, no matter how novel or innovative they may be, never set out to eradicate the original artist’s signature. May her art continue to open eyes, whether through her own performances or those of others, for centuries to come.
In Pick Five, great artists pick five cover songs that matter to them.
Vermont singer-songwriter Henry Jamison addresses a difficult subject on his new album Gloria Duplex: toxic masculinity. “When I was in college 10 years ago, we were just horrible,” he told the New York Times on the subject. “People in their 20s are examining these issues in a way that feels very natural.”
Jamison’s gift with melody makes these weighty topics levitate. Nick Drake meets The National on these twelve songs, with Jamison working with major-league collaborators including St. Vincent’s right-hand man Thomas Bartlett on production and Bon Iver collaborator Rob Moose of yMusic arranging the strings. Hear a taste on single “Boys”:
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given his talents, Jamison knows his musical history. It’s a rare musician at this point who doesn’t choose a single song anyone else has, but Jamison digs deep. No “Hallelujah” or “Hurt” here. He also continued confronting toxic masculinity at its worst, having to banish an R. Kelly cover we once also adored (not to worry, Henry’s substitute pick is great too). Let Henry introduce you to some new favorites below.
Two things strike me as I scan through our list this year. This first is that many of the highest-ranking covers are tributes to recently-deceased icons. No surprise there, I suppose. But none actually pay tribute to artists that died in 2018. They honor those we’ve been honoring for two or three years now – your Pettys, your Princes, your Bowies. Hundreds of covers of each of these legends appeared in the first days after their deaths, but many of the best posthumous covers took longer to emerge.
Good covers take time. That principle – the cover-song equivalent of the slow food movement, perhaps – holds true throughout the list. Sure, a few here appear to have arisen from sudden moments of brilliance, flash-arranged for some concert or radio promo session. But many more reveal months or even years of painstaking work to nail every element. Making someone else’s song one’s own isn’t easy. These 50 covers took the time to get it right.
– Ray Padgett, Editor-in-Chief
Start the countdown on the next page…